It doesn’t take us very long to reach the outskirts of Appleloosa. From there it’s about a fifteen minute hike to Antelope Canyon, where hopefully young Lightning still is.
We meet up with a few buffalo scouts on the way there.
“Howdy, Strongheart!” Fiddle calls.
Little Strongheart raises a hoof. “Greetings!”
“So you guys saw her heading for Antelope?” asks Whitey, getting down to buisness.
Little Strongheart nods. “Yes. Our scouts saw a pegasus pony matching that description heading towards the canyon. We have not seen her leave yet.”
I sigh. “Best we head there quickly, before she decides to run for it.”
The others agree, and we set off down the dusty trail.
Whitey takes point, hovering in the air at an easy pace. Little Strongheart leads the way, with myself and Fiddle falling into step behind her.
“Oh, Lightning, is your stomach still upset?” Strongheart asks without breaking stride.
I instinctively start rubbing circles into my chest, as if I can somehow rub the pain away. “It’s… getting there.”
“Have you considered my offer? I can guarantee the traditional methods of the shaman will grant results,” Strongheart says.
I wave her off. “Thanks, but I think I’m fine.”
Strongheart nods, smiling. “Of course. After all, you have Fiddle to look after you, don’t you?”
That makes the entire party flinch. Strongheart looks around nervously. “Did… did I say something wrong?”
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know.
Fiddle and I exchange awkward glances, as if we were yielding so the other could speak first.
I bite my tongue hard, eyes going wide to let Fiddle finish. Embarrassingly, she does the same and neither of us speak.
“They’re… not together anymore, Strongheart,” Whitey finally offers.
Little Strongheart blushes, pinning her ears back. “Oh! Oh. I’m… sorry. But… may I ask why? You two were perfect for each other.”
And just like that, everyone’s eyes fall on me. I scuff a hoof against the dusty trail beneath my hooves. “I… it…” I stumble over my words, and it feels like I’m plummeting out of the sky all over again.
“It’s still a bit of a tender topic,” Whitey offers.
Strongheart dips her head. “I understand. I apologize.”
“Yeah, no, it’s fine,” I mutter. “Let’s just… focus on what we’ve got on hoof right now.”
Everyone nods in agreement. “Can’t believe that you actually got punched by yourself,” Whitey says, giving me a teasing wink. “I guess even you can’t deal with yourself, huh?”
Fiddle chuckles. “She’s a bit of a hooful, that much is true.”
I manage to offer a smile. But Fiddle sees it, and her grin fades away.
My heart skips a beat. She’s on to me.
“Well, as you ponies say, you’ve built this bridge, now you have to lie in it,” Strongheart remarks.
Whitey chuckles. “Not quite, Strongheart. Not quite.”
Fiddle slows her pace, and I see the worry creeping into her eyes. “Dusty, hold up.”
I suck in a breath. Here we go. “What’s up?”
“We need to talk,” she whispers.
We slow our steps to get some distance between Strongheart and Whitey.
“Lightnin’... how are you? Really. Tell me,” Fiddle says.
“I’m fine, Fiddle,” I answer, scuffing my hoof against the dust again. “Really. I’m fine.”
Fiddle sighs. “Dusty, look at me.”
I carefully move my eyeline up from the ground and end up staring just past her right ear.
“Look at me, Lightnin’.”
Finally, I do. I look into her brilliant blue eyes, and I see pain. I see hurt. I see longing.
And that’s enough to break me. It’s enough to make me want to collapse onto the road, right here and now. It makes me want to dry heave and toss up all of my internal organs, if that makes the stomach pain go away.
“I… Fine, I’m not okay,” I grunt. A wave of nausea and weariness hits me, like I’ve been flying for a week without stopping.
Fiddle closes the gap and holds my hoof. “What’s wrong?”
“Everything,” I answer. The world around me starts to blur as something rises in my chest. I let it out in a pained sigh and my tear ducts start to leak. “Everything’s wrong.”
“Talk to me,” Fiddle says, cupping her hooves on my cheeks and gently lifting my head up. “Talk to me, Dusty.”
I suck in a deep breath and feel the words come leaking out. “I’m so tired of everything I put you through. I’m so tired of letting you down and failing. I’m tired because I’m not changing, Fiddle. I’m static. I’ve always been this arrogant, intolerable, insufferable excuse of a pony, and every time I think I change for the better…” I blink back tears. “I fail. I just fail.”
“You didn’t fail, Dusty. You’ve changed,” Fiddle insists. “I’ve been with you every step of the way. You’re not the same mare that showed up all those years ago.”
“But I am!” I glance up again. “I am! Fiddle, I hate who I used to be, but I hate who I am now! I’ve always been my own worst enemy, I just didn’t realize it back then. But even if I know it now… it doesn’t change anything!”
Fiddle is quiet for a second. “Does it not? I think it does, Dusty. Just knowin’ that means you’re smarter now than you were before. It means you’re changin’.”
“But what does it matter if the result is the same?” I run a hoof through my mane. “Fiddle, I’m so scared of letting you down. Because that’s all I ever seem to do. I just… I’m a world destroyer, Fiddle. And I don’t want to destroy yours.”
I wipe the tears from my eyes to see Fiddle’s soft eyes staring back at me. “Dusty, you ain’t a world destroyer. In fact, my world’s been better ever since you came into it,” she whispers. “You’re a better pony than you were before. I promise.”
“I just…” I almost choke on my words as tears fall to the ground. “I remember the week before the accident. I was confident in myself again. I finally felt like I belonged somewhere. And then… and then I got cocky. Started thinking about getting revenge on Rainbow and the Wonderbolts. Look where it got me.”
Fiddle sighs, lowering her head. “Lightnin’, hear me out. You’re smarter than you think, you’re better than you think, and even if you can’t see it, you’re not who you think you are.” She pauses for a second. “I… I love you, Lightnin’, and I know you’re so much better than what you believe you are.”
I nod, biting my lip nervously. “I don’t see what you see in me, Fiddle.”
“I know, but please. You gotta believe me.” Fiddle points out at the mountains, towards the canyon. “If not, then do it for her. You said it yourself, Lightnin’. You can help her. You can stop her from makin’ the same mistakes you did.”
“I… yeah,” I mutter, wiping the tears from my eyes. “You’re right. I can’t just sit by and let her end up like me. She… she has a chance. She deserves better.” I steady myself with a deep breath and lift my head up.
Strongheart and Whitey are waiting further down the path.
Fiddle gives me a solid pat on the back. “Come on now, Dusty. Let’s get a move on.”
“Lead the way,” I answer.
It didn’t take too long for us to reach the canyon. Strongheart takes point. “Be careful. This is a dangerous place.”
“Don’t need to tell me twice,” mutters Whitey, ears folding back.
Little Strongheart gives her a comforting pat on the back. “No worries, friend. We won’t be here any longer than it takes.”
“How about we split up?” Fiddle asks. “We’ve all got flares, sound off if someone finds her?”
All of us exchange nods. “Sounds like a plan,” I say. “Let’s do this.”
Fiddle and Whitey head to the right side of the canyon while Strongheart and I go left.
It’s a pretty breathtaking view from the top. The ground seems to split in half, leaving behind two giant walls of stone. The cuts and cracks are intricate and subtle, but it all adds up to make one beautiful wonder of nature.
I spent a lot of time racing through this canyon back when I had both wings. But I found myself coming back afterwards, with Strongheart herself to act as my guide. She taught me the buffalo names for every nook and cranny, and how you could watch the sun fall through the cracks at a certain time of day.
I guess it makes sense younger me would be drawn here.
“I hope I didn’t offend you earlier,” Strongheart says, glancing at me.
“No, no. Not at all,” I reply. “We’re… we’re working it out.”
Strongheart nods in understanding. “For what it’s worth, you two are some of the kindest ponies I’ve had the joy of knowing.”
That gets a laugh from me. “Heh. Thanks, Strongheart. You’re pretty great, too.” I raise a hoof, and she bumps it, a trick Braeburn apparently had to teach her.
“I take it that’s not something your younger self would say?” Strongheart asks.
“Sadly, no. Young Lighting is a bit of a bonehead.”
Strongheart laughs again. “I think perhaps we all were.”
I carefully sidestep a rather large rock embedded in the dust. “Maybe, but I think I was exceptionally stupid back then.”
“Hmm… that may be true, but maybe it isn’t the best approach?” Strongheart runs a hoof along the canyon wall. “I mean, I think that you truly know yourself the best, Lightning. How do you plan to talk to her?”
I hadn’t really thought about that. “That’s a good point. I tried to be upfront with her, but I should have known that wouldn’t work. I always hated other ponies trying to tell me what to do.”
“Perhaps you should try to find some common ground?” Strongheart offers. “A connection with her would likely increase your chances of succeeding.”
I tap my chin in thought. “I think you’re onto something.”
Strongheart suddenly pauses, training her eyes on the ground. “Lightning, look.” She points out a series of hoof tracks in the dust.
“Think it’s her?” I ask.
“I’d say that’s a reasonable guess,” Strongheart replies. We follow the tracks down the hills and rocks of the canyon, past natural landmarks and desert plants. Eventually, the tracks break away from the path and into a cave.
Strongheart and I exchange glances. “Lightning, perhaps it is best that you walk this path alone,” she suggests.
I nod, steadying myself with a deep breath and summoning up what little courage I have left. “Sounds good. Signal the others and shout if a storm’s coming.” I pass her my flare gun and head off into the cave.
As the cave gets darker, a cool wind blows through my mane. I hesitate and glance behind me as Strongheart fires a flare into the sky. It leaves a streak of green in its wake, spiraling up towards the sky before the cave’s mouth blocks off my view.
I sigh and forge on.